July 24, 1924, is the birthdate of Max Palevsky, the American technological entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector who was one of the founders of Intel and, surprisingly, claimed in 2001 that he never got near computers.
Palevsky was the youngest of three children, born in Chicago, Illinois, to Izchok Palevsky and Sarah Greenblatt Palevsky, Jewish immigrant parents from czarist Russia. Both were Yiddish speakers who never learned English fluently. Izchok worked as a house painter; he used public transportation to get himself and his equipment from job to job.
After high school, Max Palevsky volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was trained as a meteorologist before being sent to New Guinea, the air corps’ main electronics base in the South Pacific. He served from 1943 to 1946. The G.I. Bill enabled him to continue his schooling after the war, and he earned bachelor degrees in math and philosophy at the University of Chicago, and later began a Ph.D. program in philosophy at UCLA.
In the late 1940s, while studying and teaching at UCLA, Palevsky attended a lecture about the potential of computer technology by the mathematician John von Neumann at the California Institute of Technology. The experience was powerful enough that Palevsky resigned from his doctoral program and took a job designing differential analyzers at Northrop Aircraft. A short time later, his division was sold to Bendix Corporation, where he continued as an engineer, working on the logic design for the company’s first digital computer.
From Bendix, Palevsky moved on to Packard-Bell, becoming the director of its new computer division, which produced the first silicon computer. Seeing an opportunity in the field of small-to-medium-size process-control computers, in 1961, Palevsky raised $1 million and started his own company, Scientific Data Systems. SDS was profitable from its first project, and became a pioneer in devices that could handle both scientific and business-data computing. SDS was sold to Xerox for nearly $1 billion in 1969 – a time, as Palevsky later told an interviewer, “when $1 billion meant something.” Palevsky’s own take from the deal was some $100 million.
Thereafter, Palevsky played the role of funder – in 1968, he and venture capitalist Arthur Rock provided the initial funding for Integrated Electronics Corporation, later called Intel. But he also supported liberal politicians providing donations to Democratic anti-war presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy, in 1968, and Robert Kennedy and later George McGovern, four years later. In 1973, Palevsky funded the successful mayoral campaign of Tom Bradley, the first and only black mayor of Los Angeles.
In 2000, however, having become disenchanted with the role that big money had come to play in politics, Palevsky made his biggest political donation ever -- $1 million -- to fund California Proposition 25, which would have limited personal contributions to campaigns, and banned corporate gifts altogether. At the time, he told Newsweek, “I am making this million-dollar contribution in hopes that I will never again legally be allowed to write huge checks to California political candidates.” The ballot measure, however, was defeated.
In the 1970s, Palevsky turned his attention – and money – to the arts, becoming an important art collector – of early 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement furniture, and of modern art. He provided funding to save Rolling Stone magazine from closing in 1970, thereupon becoming its board chairman, and he started producing movies as well (“Islands in the Stream” and “Fun with Dick and Jane” are two of his more well-known, if not especially distinguished, credits). He owned and spent much time and money outfitting three homes in California; he provided major philanthropic gifts to his alma mater the University of Chicago ($20 million for construction of a dormitory complex) and to the Israel Museum, for a design pavilion. As a collector, he was interested in showing everything he owned, and so generally when he bought a new work, he would sell something else.
Late in life, Palevsky became disenchanted with technology. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2008, two years before his death, he explained his discontent with computers, which, he said, were “originally intended to expedite work and solve serious problems,” but had become “passive entertainment devices -- substitutes for interactions with the real world. Just as the Arts and Crafts movement took issue with the alienation of people from ‘pleasure in labor’ and the resulting loss of human creativity, I, too,” he continued, “oppose the depersonalization that comes from the hypnotic quality of computer games, the substitution of a Google search for genuine inquiry, the instant messaging that has replaced social discourse.”
As early as 2001, characterizing himself as “a Luddite,” he told another interviewer that he had not “touched a computer, watched TV or used a credit card in 15 years."
Palevsky was married six times, twice to the same woman, Jodie Evans, who is also his widow. Evans is a cofounder of the women’s anti-war organization Codepink, and, among many other causes, has been critical of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and called for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.
Max Palevsky suffered from heart disease and once told a friend that the worst aspect of having had four heart attacks was that his physician wouldn’t allow him to take LSD anymore. He died of heart failure, in Los Angeles, on May 5, 2010, at age 85.
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